Friday, 7 December 2007


Before we moved to the U.K., my husband and I once got to talking with another foreigner on a train, in Tokyo. She had an obviously British accent, so I asked her where she was from. I should have guessed from her mildly surprised reaction that I'd done something unusual, but I didn't. If two Americans meet in a foreign country, the first thing they do is find out what state the other is from. If one person fails to ask the question, the other one generally volunteers the information anyway. Asking is not quite de rigeur, but it's pretty close. Not knowing that Brits didn't do this, though, I repeated the gaffe the next time we met a stranger from England, and this time my husband advised me not to do it again -- that this wasn't the done thing. I was astounded.

"Why not?"

"Because people don't like it."

"But -- why?"

My husband pondered this. "Because it's a little too close to you asking them what class they're from."

"I don't believe you!"

"Okay, then -- go and ask someone else."

I did this, and she said the exact same thing. So did two more colleagues when I asked them. I was so flabbergasted that I asked every single British person I knew, and roughly 90% of them confirmed what my husband had told me: British people don't expect -- or want -- to be asked where they are from in the U.K.

I could not get over this. Americans are generally only too happy to bore you with where they are from, who their people are, where they used to live, or where they went to school; the trick is getting us to shut up about it. Yes, there are a few people who are embarrassed about their origins, but in my experience they are the exception. In fact, most Americans of low origins are dying to tell you all about it -- especially if they have risen up in the world.

That was my introduction to the British class system, and I have to admit, I was shocked. Still, when we moved to Wales, I just knew I would fit in. Why shouldn't I? For one thing, I already knew so much about the U.K., what with my British husband and ex-colleagues. For another, having a British husband I was obviously a British-vetted Yank, and therefore had passed inspection, so to speak. For yet another, I had Welsh ancestry (and just about every other kind, too, but no one in Wales needed to know about that), and finally, best of all, I didn't give a damn who belonged to what class. I figured I couldn't fail to make lots of friends: anyone snooty enough to care that I'd grown up drinking out of jam jars wasn't the sort of person I'd mind being snubbed by, and everybody else was my potential best buddy.

Hoo boy.

Six months after moving to the small valley town where we rented a miner's cottage, I was prepared to admit defeat. No one talked to me except for Ron and Irene next door, an elderly couple of mixed nationality (he was a Cockney from London; she was from the Valley) and half the time I couldn't understand what they were saying. People on the street rarely returned my cheerful greeting; ladies in the supermarket looked right past me. What was wrong with me? Why was I being snubbed? I finally found out, and for your interest, I will list my character flaws here:

1) My husband was in graduate school -- a fact I readily admitted and, as it turned out, a huge no no. If he'd been a laid-off alcoholic who beat the crap out of me every night, I might well have gotten away with it.

2) We subscribed to the Guardian. Too late, we found out that we were the only couple in town who did this.

3) We didn't go to the local pub or chippy -- obviously we were social misfits.

4) We chose to live there -- we didn't have to.

Never mind that I had genuine working class roots I was eager to share -- ex-miner cousins who got settlements for black lung disease and Appalachian relatives who misspelled the word 'such' -- never mind my family's jelly-jar glasses or the fact that going out to a fancy meal for us meant the fountain at Thrifty's Drug Store -- none of this mattered! My husband was a student; we read the Guardian; we didn't dine on fried potatoes every other night. Yes it's true: I was dissed because I was too posh -- Scout's honor.

When I went back to the States and told everybody, no one believed me. But it's the God's truth.


Church Lady said...

We've been going to Dubai every year for the past five years for 4-5 months or so. We're going again in January. Anyway, there are a lot of Brits there. I don't know why, but I always assumed *they* had more education, money, etc. (Me having to work really hard to pull up from working class roots).

And the Brits there live in style, I gotta tell you. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Enjoy life while you can. But my DH was explaining to me that back home (in England) they are much worse off, and are enjoying their money to the maximum while living there. I had assumed that they were carrying on with the same lifestyle that they had in England. It was an eye opener. Even the Americans weren't as blatantly extravagant.

I don't mean this as a criticism at all. The small circle of friends I do have in Dubai are European and mainly from England. It was just an interesting learning experience.

Anonymous said...

It's true! Britain has always been stereotyped that way, certain accents and areas all get lumped into the same bracket. Eastenders.
Coronation Street.

Still though... they really should get over it. Who you are today is hugely formed by the place you grew up in, so there's no real point in being ashamed of it.

Ello said...

Mary, I love your stories! It is amazing how cultures are so very different! I love telling people I'm from Brooklyn, NY, it is such a part of me - like I own it or something. But I guess class is a touchy subject. Asking where a person is from would have been such a natural question for me, like how are you. Poor Mary! So did they ever lighten up?

Carolie said...

It's true, it's true! We Americans (especially Southern Americans!) have a NEED to know "where your people are from." It's important somehow, to know your people are from Washington, Georgia and New York City (or wherever) for some odd reason. Dunno why, but it's satisfying. Perhaps it's the American need to find a connection with every stranger?

"Your cousin went to Episcopal Boys School in Upper Marion? So did my neighbor's best friend's nephew! Small world!" (Big, beaming smile of camaraderie!)

As for the "too posh," I had a high school friend's mother absolutely HATE me because I said "yes ma'am" and "no, sir." I was brought up to say that, it's second nature. But in her family, such things were ONLY said with extreme sarcasm, and she thought I was evil or Eddie Haskell reincarnated. *sigh*

Gorilla Bananas said...

They were scared that you might use a word they'd never heard of, which is great insult to many humans. Let's be honest, you might well have done.

As a gorilla, I love to hear a new word and waste no opportunity in using it on the person who introduced me to it. For some reason, this is also considered to be an insult of a mocking sort.

Mary Witzl said...

CL -- For me, extravagance would be buying good quality balsamic vinegar, say, or organic produce. I'm always amazed and intrigued by people for whom extravagance is the newest fashions, expensive ski equipment, and the latest model car. I could not care less about such things and often feel that money is wasted on the rich.

Good for you, having working class roots. So do I, and I am disgustingly proud of this. I've got a couple of elitist roots too, but I figure no one's perfect.

A friend of mine in this town is going back to Dubai with her husband soon. Like me, she's not very posh (or at least here in Scotland she isn't). I'll have to ask her about that! Good to know that the Yanks in Dubai aren't as extravagant as the Brits; in some places, we're the ones who flash our money about in a most unseemly fashion.

Kate -- I've been told by a few British friends that it's okay for Americans to ask this question; we obviously don't know any better. I feel that people should get over it too, but then I didn't grow up in a society where class meant as much as it does here. A friend of mine from Wales was actually told not to go on to university because her parents were shopkeepers. She is one of the brightest people I know; if anyone should have gone on to university, she should have. I just can't get over that sort of mind set.

Ello -- They never did. I think they thought we were slumming it, which we really were not. The people next door to us, Ron and Irene, were lovely, but we finally ended up moving from our little town in the Valley to Cardiff. In Cardiff, the very first week we were there, the better part of the neighborhood dropped by, individually, to welcome us. I could have wept, I was so grateful.

Carolie -- I know other people -- Southerners all -- who had to be begged not to use 'ma'am' and 'sir' as terms of address: it apparently offended people! I love hearing these. I always tell my kids that manners and real consideration for others are the true signs of a good upbringing -- not the clothes you wear, the car you drive, or the places you can afford to take your holidays.

And you are so right: Americans use the 'Where are you from in the States?' question to help them establish connections. You feel great when you learn that someone went to school in Dayton, Ohio, or that their mother-in-law came from Pensacola, Florida -- right away you've found a link.

GB -- I do use a few words that drive people wild here: 'gotten' is one, 'skillet' is another, 'vacation' for 'holiday' sets them off too... I must have some gorilla blood (I have almost everything else); I love hearing new words and can hardly wait to try them out. I just learned 'egregious' the other day, and I've been using it non-stop ever since.

Carolie said...

Good for you, Mary...keep encouraging your kids in the "ma'am" and "sir" speech...I think I told you I got my full tuition scholarship to college (university) due to a dean being impressed with my manners on the telephone!

Regardless of those who dislike "ma'am" and "sir," most folks are favorably impressed by those who use the terms, especially by youngsters who use them!

Carole said...

I have not traveled much so was surprised to learn about the UK's dislike for the "Where do you hale from?" question. Interesting.

When we were in Montana & Kansas most of our parishioners were farmers. They hated the question, "How big is your farm?" I learned that that question was the same as asking for the checkbook balance. Huh?

Could I just say that I haven't met a post I don't like on your blog. You really should see about writing a column for a travel magazine.

A Paperback Writer said...

I recall one Scot who hated admitting he was from Fife. He had to inform me of all the prejudices against Fife because I had no clue.
Most of the folks I met in Edinburgh had no issues about discussing where they were from, but this may be because Edinburgh is such a university town that attracts folks from all over the place.
I DID know one fellow (a grad student from Birmingham, then studying in Glasgow) who opening admitted changing his accent so that people wouldn't know he was from Birmingham.

Now, as for being too POSH...
I teach school in a decidedly workingclass neighborhood. When I speak to the parents at conferences and such, I deliberately put more of a western twang into my voice, use more slang, and make my grammar very casual. If I fail to do this, I alienate the people from me. I cannot speak in the same manner to people who may or may not have graduated from high school and currently work 3 minimum wage jobs as I do to my professors at the univ. of Edinburgh.

I have always been fortunate in my travels to be able to ease into situations. I can talk ranching and camping with the small town folks in in southern Utah. But I have hobnobbed with the extremely rich and important in my travels as a performer as well. (Frequently, my director -- who was the Vice President of the International Folklore Association and worked with the UN councils, as well as being wealthy enough to own the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Utah -- would choose me to do presentations and acceptance speeches to mayors, royalty, etc. because I could pull it off well.)
However, I have NEVER attempted a mining town in Wales. But if I do, I assure you I will NOT admit to being over-educated. (I'll talk sheep. I can do that. Sheep are non-threatening, and my grandfather owned lots of them.)

Oh yeah. I did learn the hard way that NO ONE in Scotland really wants to hear about Americans' Scottish ancestors because half the world seems to have Scottish roots and the Scots are sick of hearing about it. My rule of thumb was only to admit my heritage if a Scot asked about it. (One tour guide at Arbroath asked me. I told him I'd traced my ancestry back to 1603 in Ochiltree and 1620 in Clackmannan. He laughed and said I was the first American he'd met who admitted having commoners as ancestors. Apparently, everyone else had claimed to be related to Robert the Bruce.)

Brian said...

I have theories on class and the actual size of the area one comes from . Compare egalitarianism in cramped Britain where protecting one's social territory seems vital , against the expansion across North America ; and that in turn against the tyranny of distance we suffer in Oz, with its development of mateship here.

Not that we don't have the odd ghettoes of class snobbery here and there in Oz , often to do with the squattocracy .

Why , in a small country town in NSW I was once privileged to be taken for a drink in its Gentlemen's Club !

Only once , mind you !


Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Although I see precious little of it myself, I have been complimented by people in town on my kids' politeness. Though they're not very good about 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the Japanese school system drummed the importance of friendly greetings into them. Kids in Japan are actually taught to bow politely and to greet strangers in a cheerful and friendly way. It sounds corny, but when you are a stranger in a town where the kids really do this in earnest, you can't imagine the difference it makes. I once went right down to the town hall to compliment a town (in Nagano Prefecture) on the incredible politeness and sweetness of their children.

No, you hadn't told me your interesting telephone story, and I have now read this to my kids -- who were amazed by it. I am a STICKLER for good telephone manners and have actually coached both kids on this with role playing, etc. Most of their friends, bless them, are hopeless about telephone manners. My kids are already pretty crazy about you, so your good story will hopefully further reinforce my point about telephone manners. So once again, thank you!

Carole -- Thank you for that tip! I will be sure never to ask anyone in Montana how big their farm is, but if you hadn't told me, I might easily have done this. After all, I was gauche enough to say to a woman from Bristol once that she sounded like a friend of mine from Wales. Rude, insensitive me.

Your kind words about my writing could easily puff me up with pride if I didn't have all of those nice, kind rejections telling me that no one wants to read this sort of thing.

APW -- My husband is from the Midlands and he says that he would definitely cover up his accent if he were from Birmingham. Which he isn't, but even if he were, he'd never admit it.

I pride myself on being able to talk to anyone as long as that person is reasonably open and friendly. Though the subject matter might well be different depending on whom I talked to, I don't tend to use fancy words in speech, so I wouldn't have to alter my register much. I've been told that I have a weird idiolect, with rustic turns of phrase mixed with educated speech, but in my family this was the norm. For all that my mother came from real poverty, everyone in her family was educated. Even my aunts who never went to college could probably have passed the GRE. Education was seen as the one sure way to improve yourself. In the States, self improvement is a good thing. In the U.K., I have been astonished to hear this scorned as a sneaky means employed by social climbers to cover their lowly origins.

I think it's fun to find out who we are descended from, whether we can trace our ancestry back to Thomas Jefferson or the kid who shined his boots. I wish I had a dime for every American I've met here who was related to Robert the Bruce; I'm betting I'm kin to the girl who cleaned his fireplace. So, who knows? I could well be related to the great man himself...

Brian -- This is certainly true. Early settlers in America had to band together, which evened things out considerably. Women were in short supply, so if a man lost a wife -- which happened a lot given the standards of hygiene, nutrition and medicine -- he might often marry someone he would not have considered back in the old country.

I keep saying this, but I'll say it again: you should start a blog! I'd come and visit it often!

Kim Ayres said...

It's an odd thing to be certain. Asking where you're from is something I'm quite happy to ask people, but always have a problem answering. I usually have to then ask back, "Born, raised or currently residing?"

I have no roots. I have no home town where ancient and distant relatives live or are buried.

My father moved a lot. I was born in Cornwall, my first memories are in Sussex. I spent a chunk of my childhood growing up in Wales (where they were hostile to ALL incomers), finished growing up in Devon. Moved to SW Scotland, went to University in Dundee, spent a year in Canada on a student exchange, set up businesses in Central Scotland and am now back in SW Scotland, which feels more like my home than anwywhere else I've ever lived.

But then it's also hightly populated by incomers here - People who've moved away from the rat race and fancied a slower, easier, more community way of life.

My father reckons we probably have gypsy blood in us, but we also have journeymen and artisans in our background, so we've always been on the move.


As for 'sir' and 'ma'am' in everyday use, they just sound silly in the UK if you don't have an American accent.

Kara said...

If I succeed in becoming the Leona Helmsly of Portland...I will still be up for eating fried potatoes every other night. that I think about it...I'd rather be the Imelda Marcos of Portland (just for the shoes, otherwise she was a horrendous bitch). Mmmmm shooooes...what were we talking about?

Merry Jelinek said...

This was such a fun piece to read... though, I can kind of see how that works; in America saying where you're from has no class connotation... there's not a state or city that doesn't have every economic background accounted for, and if you're from a specific place that does, you can just name the state or area instead...

As far as being offended at being from low ancestry - I often remark that I'm from 'hearty peasant stock', sorry this is a point of pride for me, though it makes my mother in law gasp... and her stock's no better than mine. Truth be told, whether we Americans like to admit it or not, all of our ancesters were either commoner or worse, or blessed with wanderlust... otherwise we could never have been born in America - why the hell would our ancestors leave their country to take a gamble on a worse lot? They mostly were trying to improve things from what I gather... there's nothing wrong with hearty peasant stock, they make the best food and some of the best hearts...

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- You are almost as rootless as my kids, and thus practically immune from the whole class issue. I think the people who mind being asked their origins are those from regions that are widely disparaged. A friend once told us about a classmate of his who, though brilliant, could never expect to rise high in the U.K. because he had a northern accent. He went to the States and quickly went from strength to strength. Both this friend and his classmate were convinced that this could never have happened in Britain. Given that, I can see how someone might be less than enthusiastic about his northern origins. I'd probably hide my origins too, given such circumstances.

I've got Gypsy blood too! One of my great-grandfathers on my mother's side was apparently a tinker, a swarthy fellow who went around selling papers of pins and mending tin pots.

As for the American accent, I will happily coach you sometime if you ever feel like taking up 'sir' and 'ma'am.' Though even I have trouble with these: I don't sound southern enough unless I spend lots of time around my relatives.

Kara -- I get around the french fry issue by stealing from my kids. They order them and I demand a mom tax of three to five french fries per child. That way the calories don't count. It's a win-win situation, and one of the great advantages to having children. I'm crazy about shoes too, though I am fortunate enough to get my friends' and children's hand-me-downs and almost never buy my own. I'll write a post on shoes very soon!

Merry -- A lot of my ancestors came to the States for religious freedom, being religious nutters that no one wanted around back in the Old Country. Others were poor people who ventured abroad in hopes of making more money, and plenty were clearly destitute. Some were Irish slaves sold to plantations in Barbados, and possibly a very few were rich people who hoped to get richer still. I find the subject of immigration absolutely fascinating and like you, I am proud of my good, hearty peasant stock. It also cracks me up that so many people want to find royalty in their background but few get excited at the prospect of being descended from farmers, carters and blacksmiths. Yet, those people were infinitely more interesting and useful than the gentry, and they were the ones with the practical skills needed to build houses and create new cities -- not the people who sat around all day and ordered their servants about.

Carolie said...

All the comments about "hearty peasant stock" make me think of those who used to claim to "know their past lives." Everyone always seemed to have been previously a maharajah or a tsarina or Cleopatra-on-the-freakin'-Nile. No one ever seems to admit to having once been a sturdy babushkaed woman named Magda, squatting in the beet field to push out her seventh child! The way I look and feel now, I'm sure if I had past lives, they were much closer to Magda than to Cleopatra.

Once, I kid you not, I found the funniest sheaf of papers in my grandmother's desk which purported to trace her family history all the way back -- and I do mean ALL the way back. The sheet listed known ancestors back to a blurry line of Welshmen, danced nimbly and with much make-believe over to the English royal family, and somehow skipped blithely further and further back through Noah to Adam. Yes, to THAT Adam.

Now that's some fiction-writing I can admire! Ha!

Then, of course, there was my quite bigoted great grandmother, who proudly insisted we were descended from Christopher Columbus, until my father (with a hint of a malicious smile) explained to her that Columbus was one of those "Eye-talians" she was always denigrating. She never said another word on the subject.

Aren't people and their airs funny?

-eve- said...

Hehehehe....! That's a good story... :-)

I can identify; have always been out of place in school, too .... over here, it's because English is my first language. Ah well... when you find a place/person you can fit in with, you know you've found home...:-)

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- You are so right: whenever people discover past lives, they never regale you with tales of insurance adjusters and ship's clerks, they always proudly tell you they were emperors or great courtesans. The day someone insists that they were once a traveling huckster or washer-woman who shared a flat in a cold-water boarding-house is the day I finally start taking that channeling stuff seriously. As for me, I'd rather claim a link with Magda of the beet fields, and what an achievement: squatting in the dirt and producing a baby along with the beets.

Eve -- Being a native speaker of English can often end up a real disadvantage. Japanese native speakers of Enlish are comparatively few, but they also tend to be ostracized if they aren't careful to keep a low profile -- which just seems wrong.

We finally managed to find a place where we fit in, but it wasn't easy. It was so odd, though, not being accepted because we took the wrong newspaper and failed to hide the fact that we'd had tertiary education.

bottleblonde said...

Hi Mary. I must say I'm not surprised you had that reaction.You explained it in your last comment. You chose to be there.So how can you possibily fit it? There is a strong camaraderie amoung those forced to stay in one place. It's understood they want better but it is beyond them.They have that in common.But in choosing to live there you are insulting there aspirations [i.e to leave and better themselves]It's the same in the part of Ireland I hale from. The word they use for people like that is "grand".It isn't a compliment.I must say your incomprehension made me smile.
Love the blog by the way

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you for commenting, Jane!

Yes, in retrospect, we were so naive. There was no way that we were going to fit in, and of course the people who lived there thought that we were somehow mocking them. Actually, I think most of them were mystified by us more than anything else.

I've heard family members using the word 'grand' in a negative way: 'He's very GRAND' meaning roughly 'He's a pompous ass.' It was used to refer to someone who would create a fuss if was given a regular fork to eat fish with instead of a proper fish fork, say. I was well over 30 before I even knew there were such things as fish forks, so I would never have recognized myself as grand...

Barbara Martin said...

When I worked in London, England I ran into the same sort of snobbery, not only from the firm I had applied to for work, but from work colleagues. It had been plainly put to me, after the lawyer learned I had permission to work under an Ancestry Permit, where my grandmother came from. Birmingham, I told him, while noting the uncomfortable expression on the human resource manager's face. I realized at that point in the conversation he had asked an improper question, and it went further when he asked what she had done (as in profession). At least then I knew where the conversation was going and proceeded to enlighten him that my grandmother's father was a lawyer, and that her first cousin had been one of the Chief Justices of England in the 1920s. He looked a bit shocked but recovered well and went onto the next of his list of questions.

I landed that job and work colleagues carefully inquired where I was staying, and became standoffish when they learned I had a west end address. Personal assistants did not live in posh surroundings apparently. To my standards it wasn't all that "posh": the apartment was shrunken compared to the size I was used to in Canada.

Later, I learned that most of the working class either shared flats or lived in rooms in England. Some had houses.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- You sound as though you also had a time of it, trying to ride that thin line! And it is interesting that what some Americans might have interpreted as friendly interest struck your colleagues as obnoxious nosiness.

I like to think that I'm neither posh nor peasant, and most people I know here have given up trying to find out which I am -- which is exactly how I want it. My own ancestors were a real mixture. Over my years in the U.K., I've met people who were obviously working class but defied every cliche and stereotype, and I've met their posh counterparts too. I love seeing stereotypes exploded.

I often wonder what my ancestors would have thought of me, crossing the Atlantic to come live here.

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